Is the Supply Chain Broken?

food supply chain - chicken, pig, cow

By Anthony Vatterott

A few weeks ago I wrote a small piece on the supply chain challenges during interruptions both natural and man-made.  If you recall, I stated that the food supply chain is relatively stable and safe from negative implications of larger supply chain interruptions because most of the food products we consume (dairy, meat, poultry) are produced and consumed in the United States.  I also compared the interruptions we may experience to the ones noted in Brazil during a trucking strike as well as the consequences of a strike of longshoremen in 2014-2015.

It has been a few weeks and I wanted to circle back and check how my comments and assertions held up.  As recently stated in various news reports, companies like Tyson Foods, as well as several other meat packing plants and food processing plants, have been under scrutiny due to the disproportionate numbers of infected Covid-19 patients that work in such locations.

However, as bad as it might sound for a company like Tyson Foods to state the “food supply chain is breaking” it is my job to qualify such a statement.

As we know, coronavirus spreads among groups of shared interest who are gathering in generally close proximity to each other.  For example, we had the matter of Christian denomination South Koreans, sisters of a religious order at a nursing home, and a brotherhood of skiers in a small ski town in Idaho, all of whom shared the disease among their peers.

In the instance of Blaine County, Idaho, the proportion of infected per 100K population was more than 1000 cases higher than New York, New York.

So we can definitely say the likelihood of a workplace where sanitation plays such a significant role in processing and preparing food sources like pigs, chickens and cows–and where workers are in close proximity to each other–are also a breeding ground for the spread of coronavirus, where fluid aerosols, evaporation, perspiration and moisture levels may also cause other instances of disease like salmonella, listeria, and e.coli.   But can we say the food supply chain is broken?  Many experts and practitioners disagree with that conclusion.

It’s easy to explain why a major business leader of one of the largest meat processors in the country would suggest that the supply chain is breaking.  The truth:  the strain on labor and the need for the UCFW and meat packers to continue working through the pandemic as they are indeed essential workers, and the need to ensure their safe working environments, is critical to ensuring our food supply chains deliver the goods.  If I were a corporate executive, I would encourage any reasonable action that would ensure the continuity of my workforce and production capacity.  The action by Tyson of posting a full page ad in the New York Times was more a call to arms for the White House to initiate the Defense Production Act than it was to cause mass hysteria.  In a way, it was looking out for the farmers struggling with depopulating livestock.

The truth is, if the workers who slaughter, process and pack livestock into foodstuffs are not able to manually separate or monitor the packaging of these foods, we do not have enough automated processes in place to ensure continuity of manufacturing.  And there is where the bottleneck occurs.

However, a bottleneck indicating the supply chain is breaking is like being stuck in rush hour traffic and saying the Interstate is broken.  In time, it will correct itself, as demand patterns level off and individuals buying excess due to scarcity realize their food spoiled, or their deep freezer is fully stocked.  In a very similar measured response, we also have the ability to divert foods prepared for commercial sale to be allocated to retail stocks; a strategy that in the future becomes easier to manage with improved transparency created by distributed ledgers in the Blockchain that allow us to track even a single prescription pill from its production source to its consumption point.   And finally, we have other sources of food supply to rely on, as very poignantly explained on Saturday Night Live.

So what are we to believe?  Should we be planning to buy our next supply of beef from a locally raised, grass-fed stock and pay more for the higher quality?  Or should we consider reducing our animal-based protein intake to improve our life expectancy?  Several studies agree a more diverse diet with less reliance on diary and meats can lead to a healthier lifestyle.  Note:  all of these options are sustainable alternatives to “business as usual” and we haven’t even resorted to hunting, fishing and the self-reliance movement or the farm-to-table supply chain and community gardening initiatives where locally sourced and distributed goods are of a higher quality and produced closer to the point of consumption.  All of these alternatives reduce the food miles required to deliver your foods, support locally or regionally viable businesses, and keep small businesses operating.

So let’s be clear.  The food supply chain is not breaking.  In fact, here in the United States, it’s not even close to stalling.  What we do see is a very near term reduction in production capacity as workers get tested, cleared and are able to return as essential employees.  And with the actions of the government and the DPA, we can be sure it happens as fast as feasible.  Will it be a week or two where meats and dairy may be limited or the variety may not be as diverse?  Yes.  But do you need to fill your freezer with every flank steak and pork tenderloin in stock?  No.  If you are hungry, you can definitely select one of several dozen types of canned soup and ready to eat meals, the demands for which were estimated well over a few months before the pandemic to increase in demand and for which, there should be a readily ample supply, the variety and the desired comfort-food calm required to keep us all cozy at home, if necessary.  Just don’t make a run on the Goldfish!

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